The Tasks Before a Victorious LDP in the Post-Election LandscapePolitics
The ruling coalition’s Liberal Democratic Party and Kōmeitō came out victorious in the July 21 House of Councillors election, winning a majority of the seats up for grabs. Since his own reelection to the presidency of the LDP in September 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has guided his party to six straight wins in national elections. This time, though, he once again fell short of the goal of securing two-thirds of the upper house seats, including those not up for election, for politicians in favor of amending the Constitution of Japan. And voter turnout was dismal, marking the second-lowest level in all Diet contests held since the end of World War II.
In this essay I will analyze the significance of this election’s proceedings and its results, beginning with an overview of the contest as a whole and the vote outcome. I will then examine the Reiwa Shinsengumi, a political group launched by Yamamoto Tarō, formerly an actor, that gained a respectable level of support in the election. Finally, I will go over the issues that face Prime Minister Abe in the postelection landscape.
In October this year, when preschool education becomes free of charge for all families and the consumption tax rate rises from 8% to 10%, he will have achieved all of his primary goals pursued to date under the banners of work-style reform and a revolution in human-resource development. From autumn onward, according to some reports, the Abe administration will direct its efforts to the reform of Japan’s social security systems. If this is to be his government’s focus, he will need to come up with reform proposals that go beyond the superficial to have real impact in order to maintain his administration’s centripetal force.
Dismal Voter Turnout
We must first note that the electorate showed little interest in this July’s upper house contest. Voter turnout reached only 48.8%, the second-lowest figure for House of Councillors elections in the postwar era.
There were two reasons for this. First was the advantageous position of the ruling parties, which was evident before the polls opened; second was the lack of clear points of contention to differentiate the parties. Prime Minister Abe campaigned on the need to amend the Constitution, mainly by clearly spelling out the presence and role of the Self-Defense Forces in it. Even among the political forces in favor of altering the nation’s basic law, though, there are considerable gaps in the importance they attach to this task, and Abe was unable to articulate a concrete amendment proposal that could garner the universal support of these forces. In the end, the debate on constitutional amendment remained superficial. Other policies that the Abe administration brought to the table, such as free preschool education, had originally been proposed by the Democratic Party of Japan, leaving little room for meaningful debate between the ruling parties and the various opposition parties formed by the former members of the DPJ on these topics.
Voters Cautious on the Constitution
A look at the election results shows the LDP winning 57 seats and the junior coalition partner Kōmeitō taking 14, together accounting for more than half of the 124 seats up for election this year. (Half of the seats in the chamber go up for election every three years, with members serving staggered six-year terms.) On the opposition side of the aisle, meanwhile, the Constitutional Democratic Party and Democratic Party for the People, both descended from the DPJ, took 17 and 6 seats, respectively. Nippon Ishin no Kai won 10 seats, the Japanese Communist Party won 7, and the Reiwa Shinsengumi won 2. Candidates from other parties (the Social Democratic Party and N-Koku, the Party to Protect the People from NHK) or without affiliation took the remaining 11.
Seats Won in the 2019 Upper House Election
|Seats won in 2019 election||Electoral districts||Proportional representation|
|Ruling coalition||Liberal Democratic Party||57||38||19|
|Opposition parties||Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan||17||9||8|
|Democratic Party for the People||6||3||3|
|Japanese Communist Party||7||3||4|
|Nippon Ishin no Kai||10||5||5|
|Social Democratic Party||1||0||1|
|Party to Protect the People from NHK||1||0||1|
In the July election, many observers focused on the number of seats won by the ruling parties, of course, but also on the number taken by politicians in favor of constitutional amendment. Proposing revisions to Japan’s Constitution requires at least 164 votes, or two-thirds of the seats in the House of Councillors. There were 79 members in the prorevision camp whose seats were not up for election this year, meaning that 85 was the magic number to shoot for, including members of the ruling coalition parties as well as victorious candidates from the Ishin no Kai, which takes a favorable stance toward revising the basic law.
As the numbers above show, though, even including the 10 seats Ishin no Kai won, the prorevision forces won a total of just 81 seats and thus could not take the needed two-thirds of the total seats in the chamber. This suggests that voters are taking a cautious approach to the question of amending the Constitution.
Nothing to Argue About?
The LDP’s haul of 57 seats this July was 8 seats lower than the party’s showing in the upper house election in 2013, but it did represent a modest step up from the 55 seats it won in 2016. There was little change in the percentage of proportional representation votes taken by the LDP: 35.37%, compared to 34.68% in 2013 and 35.91% in 2016. Last year, the Abe administration faced stiff political headwinds due to the emerging scandals involving government favors provided to the private school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen. These headwinds appear to have stopped blowing, though, and voter support for the ruling coalition has recovered.
Three factors have contributed to this recovery. The first is the strong performance of the Japanese economy. In fiscal 2017 real growth in the economy hit 1.9%, and nominal growth was 2.0%; in fiscal 2018 the figures were a more modest, but still positive, 0.7% and 0.5%. the unemployment rate for May 2019, just before the election, was a low 2.4%, and the job market was tight, with a high opening-to-application ratio of 1.62. Nominal employee compensation climbed by 1.9% in fiscal 2017 and 2.8% in 2018, with the inflation-adjusted real figures at 1.3% and 2.1% for those years.
The second factor was the difficulty the opposition parties faced in defining policy differences with the ruling coalition on which to campaign. Since the autumn of 2015 the Abe administration has called for reforms to the nation’s working styles and a “revolution” in approaches to human-resource development. These calls have materialized in hikes to the minimum wage, moves to make preschool education and childcare free of charge, zero-tuition higher education for low-income learners, and the introduction of grant-based scholarships, among other measures. Many of these policies were originally proposed by the Democratic Party of Japan and its successor, the Democratic Party, which existed from 2016 to 2018. In its campaigning for the 2017 House of Representatives election, for example, the DP used the slogan “All for all” to propose free education and childcare for preschool-aged children and reductions in university tuition, to be paid for out of revenues from the higher consumption tax.
This meant that the CDP and DPP found it difficult to criticize these policy proposals in this year’s election campaigning. The one point of contention that did arise was the question of whether to go through with the October hike in the consumption tax to 10%. Both parties blasted the planned hike and pledged to postpone it. Even this tax hike, though, was one that the DPJ itself had made strenuous efforts to push through the Diet when it was the ruling party. The arguments by its successor parties against the tax hike therefore lacked persuasiveness.
The third factor was the history of these parties, whose members have repeatedly split from and formed alliances against one another since the DPJ lost power in 2012. The political path from the fracturing of the DPJ in late 2012 to the current existence of its two successors, the CDP and DPP, is a tangled one to follow. What is more, voters’ original experience with the DPJ when it was in power has undermined their trust in the parties that have come after it. The Democrats declared that they would place politicians back in charge of the actual leadership of the country, but their administration managed matters with a clumsy hand, leading to a split in the party after continuous internal squabbles that lasted right up to the end of its time in power.
In May 2016, the DPJ merged with the Japan Innovation Party, rechristening itself the Democratic Party. When the Party of Hope formed in September 2017, a wavering DP sought to achieve a merger with the new arrival. Once it became evident that the two sides had significant differences in political aims, though, the DP split once more, into three groups: those who would join Hope, those who would stay behind in a deflated DP, and those who would create yet another party, the CDP. Following the October 2017 general election, the DP underwent still more twists and turns before absorbing much of Hope’s membership and emerging as the DPP.
The meandering course taken by these various parties with their genesis in the DPJ did little to instill confidence in them among the electorate. There was little expectation in this summer’s upper house contest that the CDP or DPP would step up and play a meaningful opposition role against the LDP.
In fact, the CDP did enjoy a respectable level of support from voters in the 2017 general election, when it gained the highest number of seats of any opposition party. Since then it has extended its position in both the lower and upper houses. In this year’s upper house contest, the Constitutional Democrats won 15.81% of the proportional representation votes, the second-highest level among all parties—a place it also occupied in the 2017 election. The DPP, meanwhile, won only 6.95% of the PR votes this year, placing it below even the Communists by this measure.
In short, the 2019 House of Councillors election saw the CDP cement its status as the leading opposition party. But it also saw a development whose importance goes beyond the question of which forces came out ahead on the opposition side of the aisle: the emergence of the Reiwa Shinsengumi and its capture of two upper house seats.
An Opposition Party That Opposes
In April this year Yamamoto Tarō, a former actor who won an upper house seat in the 2013 election, launched the Reiwa Shinsengumi. This new party went on to garner 2.28 million proportional representation votes, securing two seats and clearing the threshold required to receive public funding under the Political Party Subsidies Act. Yamamoto himself failed to retain a seat, despite gaining 990,000 votes for himself as an individual candidate in the national PR bloc, as his party’s two seats went to candidates with severe physical disabilities, elected under a special candidate quota.
There are two reasons that Reiwa’s advances are noteworthy. The first is the extreme policies it championed in the areas of distributing income and reducing financial burdens on the people. For example, the party called for abolishing the consumption tax completely, instituting a ¥30,000 per capita monthly payment for all citizens, providing compensation to all households in the farming industry, and raising the national minimum wage to ¥1,500. The Reiwa Shinsengumi is clearly a populist movement. Going by the Cambridge dictionary definition of populism, “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want,” the party lives up to this name.
Second is the party’s success in rapidly drawing supporters to its side over the three short months from its formation to the election. The Reiwa Shinsengumi won 4.55% of the votes in July, and party leader Yamamoto won the highest number of votes cast for an individual candidate since the 2001 introduction of an open-list system in Japan’s proportional representation voting.
How has this new party been able to secure this level of support in such a short time? Once again, we can posit two reasons for this. Firstly, its criticisms of the status quo are not without merit. Japan’s economy has been mired in a deflationary funk for 20 years. Opinion polls are finding that a majority of respondents find it difficult to make ends meet, and previous administrations have taken steps to make the country’s income taxation system less progressive. It is no surprise that the Reiwa Shinsengumi’s criticism of these conditions found a receptive audience among part of the electorate.
Secondly, the various remnants of the Democratic Party of Japan had expended considerable political energy with their mergers and splits, leaving them unable to put forth a policy platform on whose basis to challenge the LDP. The Reiwa Shinsengumi could be described as the only opposition force to campaign on policies countering those of the Abe administration.
Reiwa is already taking a determined stance toward the next lower house election, and it appears likely that if the other opposition parties move into the campaigning phase with things as they stand today, the newcomer will claim a considerable portion of the anti-LDP vote. The CDP and DPP, in particular, will need to move swiftly to address this situation—with yet another merger to pool their forces once again included among the possibilities to be considered.
The Domestic Agenda All Wrapped Up?
The emergence of the Reiwa Shinsengumi also provides valuable hints as to the future issues to be faced by the Abe administration.
Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2012, Abe Shinzō has presided over a government that can be divided into two periods, from the perspective of domestic policymaking. The first period lasted from the launch of his administration in December 2012 to the autumn of 2015. During this time, the prime minister put forward the “three arrows” of Abenomics, pressing the Bank of Japan to relax its monetary policy and fleshing out his strategies to put the economy on a growth track. These included a reduction in the corporate tax rate, corporate governance reforms for the private sector, and the liberalization of the electricity market.
The second period, lasting from late 2015 to the present day, saw Abe tackle policies in the areas of labor and income distribution. His administration’s “work-style reforms” aimed to limit workers’ overtime hours, while its “human-resource revolution” made preschool education free of charge, lessening pressure on working parents, and made higher education free for students from low-income households. This second-period set of policies will largely be completed with the hike in the consumption tax and the implementation of zero preschool fees this October.
The question for the prime minister, then, is what policies he will pursue on the domestic front from this autumn onward. After securing his third term as LDP president in the party election last fall, he indicated that social security reform would be one target of his efforts henceforth. Indeed, at a press conference held after the July upper house election, he reiterated his intent to focus on measures to tackle Japan’s dwindling birthrate and aging population and to bolster the country’s social security systems.
In previous years, Abe frequently chose August or September to announce his new policy schemes. This points to the chance that he will do the same this year, announcing social security reform as his main domestic policy pursuit within the coming months. What will be the likely content of this scheme? One point Abe has repeatedly made is the need to provide employment opportunities to the elderly who wish to continue working. During the ordinary Diet session to take place in 2020, his administration is planning to advance legislation that will require corporations to make efforts to extend the retirement age to 70.
Compared with Abe’s policy efforts in areas like economic growth, reforms to working styles, and human-resource development, though, social security is not a field where new policies can bring about visible change right away. Setting the retirement age at 70 is something that corporations will only be asked to make efforts to do, after all. Japan will need to see bolder reforms put in play to address its increasingly top-heavy population pyramid.
Needed: A Still Stronger Economy
Prime Minister Abe may still intend to work toward revision of the Constitution. But the fact remains that the forces in favor of amending the document do not occupy the needed two-thirds of seats in the House of Councillors, and even among those forces, there are a range of views on the appropriate way to go about the task. This means that Abe would need to expend immense political energy to move the constitutional debate forward, with no guarantee of success.
In the end, the most important area for policy is likely to be the economy, just as the prime minister has stressed. In my view, whether the aim is to boost economic growth or to extend employees’ working lives, what will be necessary is investment in human capital. A rethinking of today’s higher education, which splits the liberal arts from the hard sciences, and creation of a system for people to go back to school will contribute to both the expansion of senior employment and the increasing sophistication of high-tech industry. These steps should also make it easier to reform Japan’s social security systems and invigorate its economy. If the administration positions concrete proposals along these lines as the core of its domestic policy going forward, it should be able to maintain its buoyancy even in rough political seas.
A 1995 survey by the Management and Coordination Agency (today MIC, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) found that households with two or more working members enjoyed an average monthly disposable income of ¥482,174. In 2018, the same survey found this figure had fallen to ¥455,125. Another survey administered in 1995 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (now the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare) determined that 51.8% of households considered their lives to be going normally, while 42.0% reported that their lives were difficult. A reversed split was seen in the 2018 survey, with 57.7% of households reporting difficulties and just 38.1% saying that things were going well. Social shifts like these have underpinned the support shown for the Reiwa Shinsengumi this year; deep dissatisfaction has undoubtedly been piling up in some segments of Japanese society.
It is certain that conditions have improved somewhat since Prime Minister Abe came to power. The MIC survey for 2012 found that average monthly disposable income for dual-or-more-income households stood at just ¥425,005, and the MHLW survey for the same year had fully 60.4% of households reporting difficulties, with just 35.8% happy with their situation. Achieving further improvements from here on out, though, will require still more growth in Japan’s economy.
Having come out victorious in the last six elections is no guarantee that things will remain steady for the Abe administration. It must show itself ready to take further steps to enhance economic conditions if it is to continue enjoying public support.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, president of the Liberal Democratic Party, affixes flowers to the names of victorious LDP candidates in the July 21, 2019, House of Councillors election at party headquarters in Tokyo. © Jiji.)